Cuckfield Cosmos United U15 6 (Crow 44, 48, 58, 59; Smibert 64, 76)
Crawley Wasps U15 2 (Perry 43; Livingston 69)
It had to happen eventually – but it took a team of boys to do it.
Three years and four months after their last competitive defeat, the 13- and 14-year-old girls of Crawley Wasps finally renewed acquaintance with that losing feeling in a thoroughly entertaining, hard-fought and mutually respectful historic encounter at Cuckfield.
Manager Emma Wood entered the team in the Mid Sussex Youth and Minor Football League – where they became Sussex’s first all-girls side to play in boys’ football at that level – to learn and to improve after three successive unbeaten seasons in female leagues that were becoming easier by the week.
She will undoubtedly get her wish.
In 80 sun-baked minutes at Cosmos’ impressive complex at Whiteman’s Green, they probably learned as much as they had in an entire season in the Sussex County Women and Girls League.
And given the impressively high standard at which they began their new journey into the unknown, any consequent improvement is going to extend the gap that already exists between them and most of their female peers still playing in girls’ leagues.
Mixed football isn’t for everyone, although many girls up and down the country play as individuals in boys’ teams.
But Sussex FA co-operated with Wasps’ request to move into the Mid Sussex youth league, following the FA’s decision to extend mixed-gender football to under-18 level, because it accepted that it was necessary for an already immensely talented bunch of teenage girls to continue their progression in the game.
The consequence of not doing so was to risk losing them to women’s football – a far more damaging prospect for the female game, judging by the quality displayed by Crawley’s team of many talents.
They even took the lead in their first ever competitive 11-a-side, on a large pitch in temperatures well above 20C, Amy Perry, their runaway top-scorer last season, beating Tom Packham in the Cuckfield goal with a speculative shot from some 25 yards.
But after a goalless first half in which they more than held their own without seriously threatening their hosts – kept in the game by some sensational goalkeeping by Lauren Graves – Perry’s 43rd-minute opener merely stung Cosmos into action.
There was a new intensity about their every move from the moment they kicked off again, and within 60 seconds they were level when Logan Crow, their strong, pacy left-sided attacker, tapped home after Graves had parried.
A few minutes later and they were ahead with a goal that sparked a little controversy on the sidelines but little more than a frustrated shrug among the girls on the pitch, Crow again on hand to side-foot home after Graves had inadvertently pushed a cross into his path, as Wasps’ representative running the line flagged vainly for offside.
The double blow, so soon after the euphoria of taking the lead, seemed to sap Crawley as much as the sun, and their erstwhile composure on the ball – which had been such a pleasing feature of a magnificent first half – vanished as tired legs and burning lungs forced defenders into hurried clearances, which seemed to come back at them with increasing ferocity.
Further goals from Crow (58 and 59 minutes) and one from Conall Smibert (who will surely claim it despite the last touch coming off defender Chloe Upton) finished the game as a contest.
But it merely accelerated Wasps’ learning curve, as they discovered that despite inferior fitness – exacerbated by an absence of substitutes to enable tired players to recover their breath – they could still take the game to their opponents – and score, Ellie Livingston poking home to drag it back to 5-2 on 69 minutes.
While Smibert grabbed a second, this time undisputed, goal with a composed finish four minutes from time, both sides came away with victories – Cosmos’ the deserved three points but Wasps’ the less obvious vindication of their decision to test themselves against stronger, more powerful and yet no more skilful, opponents.
In fact, two of the outstanding performances of the game came from Wasps players – Graves was magnificent in the Crawley goal, saving everything thrown at her in the first half, whether bravely diving at forwards’ feet or diving athletically to turn piledrivers over the bar or around the post.
Yes, she was beaten six times in the second half as Cosmos’ superior stamina – and flexibility of strategic substitutions – told.
But after years of spending much of Wasps’ one-sided games an idle spectator (they conceded only five goals in the league last term) she proved she is an invaluable element of this fine side.
And in front of her, centre-back and captain Eleanor Keegan was a colossus. Rarely have I seen a performance of such composure and domination in the face of intense and repeated pressure, always popping up in the right place to tackle or intercept and invariably – in the first half, at least – distributing thoughtfully and accurately to set up her side’s counter-thrusts.
Twice in that excellent first half Wasps built from positions of vulnerability, turning defence into attack with superb one-touch passing.
Firstly, in five instant touches, starting with Graves’ well-placed goal-kick, they earned a throw-in midway inside Cosmos’ half.
And then, when Graves was put under pressure from a back-pass, she merely triggered the next series of one-touch passes that got Wasps out of potential trouble and well up the pitch, with a precise pass to her full-back.
They visibly wilted in the second half, notably from the moment their goal sparked a renewed intensity in their opponents.
Everybody at the club, from Wood, their manager, to the individual players, knows they need to get fitter to compete. And they will.
Yet this was not the depiction of strong, lithe teenage boys destroying their female counterparts with brute force that many might have anticipated. Cosmos’ acceleration from a standing start was noticeably sharper than that of the girls, but for much of the game defenders and midfielders raced back into position in time to block shots or get in tackles.
Nor was there a tangible advantage to the boys in 50-50 challenges, where Wasps more than held their own, and when no player from either side stayed down after a strong tackle. If only men’s – and increasingly, women’s – professional football was more like this.
No quarter was asked, or given, and the game was won by the team who, on the basis of meaningful possession in key areas, shots on goal and territorial advantage, deserved to win.
‘They got a bit of a scare’
Gordon Smibert, Cuckfield’s manager, paid his opponents the ultimate tribute when he said there was little difference from his team’s previous matches against boys.
“It was nice to see the boys in our team play a match as they would any other, so I don’t think the fact that they were women made any difference at all,” he said.
Smibert was impressed by the way Wasps played. “The girls like to play it back, playing football.”
While he denied that his players gave any sort of concession to the girls in challenges – “there were a few crunching tackles in there from both sides” – he acknowledged that they did step it up the moment they went behind.
“First half, I think they felt they had done really well without actually scoring, but yes, I think they did pick it up again (after Wasps’ goal). I think they got a bit of a scare.”
And he added: “I think they learnt that [the girls] can give them just as good a game as the boys’ teams in this division.”
Their lack of options from the bench (Wasps had players unavailable for a variety of reasons), he felt, might hinder their progress in terms of results, though.
‘I definitely made the right decision’
Emma Wood, Wasps’ much-admired manager, who commands absolute respect from each of her players, was unsurprisingly proud of their accomplishment in their historic first fixture.
“We only had 11 [players] today – it’s not an excuse, but I think towards the end in that second half, it told in the heat. It’s fitness, I think. Once they get that and they get used to the speed of the game, they’ll be fine.
“They got their two goals, which I think they thoroughly deserved. I said to them at half-time that I personally think they were better footballers, in terms of how they played and their movement.
“[Cuckfield] had that big blond kid (Crow) who scored goals. He’s quick. They’re not used to that. But it’s learning to overcome that.
“I was really proud of them. I thought they did really well.”
Wood felt her players had learned “loads” from their first encounter with male footballers. “The quickness of the game, getting into the right positions, fitness.
“Last year, we would never have played at that speed, at that level, at that intensity. So I think it’s a massive learning curve, even from the first game.”
Before the match, Wood and some of the players had watched part of an all-girls game on an adjoining pitch. She said: “If you were to compare this with the nine-v-nine over there, I think I definitely made the right decision.”
‘I’m not worried about losing at all’
After going so long without defeat, Wasps appeared to take their loss in their stride.
Clearly aware of shortcomings in their individual and collective performances, they seem to relish the prospect of allowing every experience in the Mid Sussex league shape their future.
Eleanor Keegan, their elegant captain, whose composure acts as an exemplar beacon to the rest of the team, speaks as eloquently as she plays, and with genuine insight.
She told Sent Her Forward after the game: “[Cuckfield] were definitely quicker, but I think when we were in our positions and we had the right structure, I think we did all right and we managed to cut them out. They were shooting from further out, which is what Woody wanted – we weren’t letting them get in the box.”
The 14-year-old revealed the players were nervous beforehand. “It’s a big change from playing girls that we’re beating week in, week out, to getting chucked in the deep end. We haven’t really played 11-a-side before (last season’s under-14 games were nine-a-side) – and they’re boys, so they’re bigger and stronger.”
But the captain acknowledged that their calm, composed defending had disappeared during the second half. “We started to panic a bit, but we were getting tired and everyone was all over the place. People couldn’t get back in their positions,” she explained.
“I think we all need to get fit, to be honest. The main thing is if we’re out (of position), we get our rest when we get back into position and we slow them down.”
Far from being chastened by her first experience of playing competitively against the boys – and of losing, for three years, at least – Keegan is raring to go again.
“I’m excited and not worried about losing at all,” she said. “It’s good for us. We’re going to get quicker and we’re going to be better, so I’m excited for it.”
Sent Her Forward player of the match: Lauren Graves (Crawley Wasps)
What a prospect! Beaten six times, with no more than a couple attributable to her, the goalkeeper performed heroics to keep it level for the first 40 minutes. She performed brilliantly, pulling off point-blank reaction saves and holding every long-range shot that came her way. And she earned high praise from Cuckfield’s management team.
Of the outfield players, Eleanor Keegan was outstanding. Stylish in everything she does, she relishes a challenge and leads by example. She reminds me more of Bobby Moore than any male player I have seen.
Given that Wasps’ defenders must have had a pretty easy time of it for much of the past three or four years, it was notable that there were some outstanding performances from those at the back.
While often exposed, particularly in the second half as fatigue denied their bodies the opportunity to do what their brains were telling them to do, they each impressed at different times – especially Emily Tilford-Carey, who made a couple of immaculate tackles and also showed excellent technique in tight corners.
Farther forward, Macy Watts and Poppy Nichols also gave Cosmos plenty to think about.
While today was more about the girls and their performance than the result, it should be noted that Cuckfield did their job in what must have been difficult circumstances for them, too.
The nervousness felt by Wasps at the start of their new adventure was probably shared (if less noticeably) by their opponents, who probably felt they couldn’t win, whatever the result.
They played their full part in a fine game, relying heavily on the pace of Logan Crow down the left, who was excellent and on another day, against a lesser goalkeeper, could have had seven or eight.
Sent Her Forward match rating: 7/10 Competitive, with plenty of quality on both sides – and exemplary behaviour.